Hydrogen fuel is the buzz topic in the automotive industry this year, with ambitious car manufacturer Toyota introducing its first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in 2015. The Mirai (which means future in Japanese) will be available to the UK market in the summer at a reported cost of around £40k.
Toyota is not the first to launch a fuel cell vehicle (FCV), as Hyundai led the way with the ix35 in 2010. But are hydrogen fuel cars really the future? And what are the pros and cons of introducing them to your company car fleet? We take a look in more detail.
What is hydrogen fuel?
Hydrogen is a natural element that carries energy. The energy is delivered to fuel cells, which then generate electricity that can power vehicles.
Benefits of hydrogen fuel
So let’s start with the arguments for. Hydrogen fuel is seen as a fundamental way to sustain motoring in the future, and reduce our need for finite fossil fuels. This will be welcome news to businesses that are increasingly under pressure to adopt green policies and reduce their carbon footprint, which is why hydrogen fuel vehicles will be attractive to fleet managers.
Hydrogen is seen as a clean fuel as it does not produce any toxic emissions after burning, unlike carbon. Its impact on the environment is minimal as it releases harmless water vapour.
As a renewable energy source, hydrogen fuel can be produced when needed. If comparing hydrogen to petroleum, like for like, hydrogen can take a car twice as far. A kilogram of hydrogen is the equivalent to one gallon of petroleum and currently costs less.
Disadvantages of hydrogen fuel
There are many challenges that need to be overcome if we are all to start using FCVs. Even though hydrogen fuel is cheaper per gallon than petroleum, FCVs are generally more expensive than their petroleum equivalents.
In comparison to oil and coal, hydrogen fuel is expensive to store and to transport. It is also pricey and complicated to create, as it requires a process that isolates it from other elements. This process relies on the use of fossil fuels, meaning that hydrogen fuel would not exist without the finite resources it is seeking to replace.
At the moment, there are around thirteen hydrogen fuel stations currently in operation in the UK, most of which are located in Southern England and the Midlands. There are plans to create more in 2015, with the government pledging £11million towards the cause. However the lack of stations in populated areas would be a cause for concern for any individual or company whose staff are regularly on the road.
There are also safety concerns around using Hydrogen as fuel as it is extremely flammable. If it comes in direct contact with skin, it can cause frostbite due to the extreme cold temperatures that are needed to store it.
Fuel cell vehicles are an exciting prospect but there is still a lot more research, testing and development to be done before they are accessible to all. The infrastructure here in the UK needs to be vastly improved to support hydrogen vehicles, which means they are not a reliable option for fleets at the moment.
Car manufacturers will be encouraged to learn that Toyota announced it is tripling its Japanese production of the Mirai in 2016 due to demand, highlighting that consumers do see the value in FCVs. Only time will tell how much hydrogen cars will change the face of motoring.